Saturday, 4 July 2015

Hurt and Hope in the Upside-Down Kingdom of Jesus Christ

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. (Matthew 3:45)
I guess the truth is that I'm afraid. Afraid that God won't be all that he claims he is. Afraid that the unimaginable good he gives will turn out to be disappointing - something less satisfying than the good I can imagine. (I forget that all the good I can imagine has come to me from God's own hand. I forget that, having given his only Son, there is no good that God can withhold from me.)

When life starts to hurt, I start to think, "What am I doing wrong?" Job's friends came to him with the same question. The reasoning is powerful: since God doesn't punish unjustly, if it hurts, you must be doing something to deserve it. Only hurt isn't always punishment.

There are lots of things that hurt when you are doing them right.

Like forgiveness, for example. I don't know where I got the idea that forgiveness is supposed to feel soft and smooth, warm and wafting, effortless - a wave of peace and love that washes over the heart, healing wounds. No, forgiveness is the disinfectant spray your Mom used to put on an already-painful cut. Forgiveness is having someone punch you and not punching back. And not asking someone else to punch back. It hurts. All you can think about is how much it hurts, and even that is not the end - the lies come thick and clamourous, sharp with the mocking accusation that you are the weak one, the fool. Oh, forgiveness hurts the most when you are doing it right.
Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up. (James 4:10)
I will bow myself. I will accept hurt, and fear, and seeming failure. Jesus is here, and he leads the way.  I am all raging and trembling inside, and a new fear arises - that I will stumble and fall here, and then have nothing. I hold to God and beg him to hold on to me.

The answer is, of course, that he is holding on to me. The fact that I long for him is the result of his drawing.

I am not the first to fear this way. Joseph, stuck in prison, waited for the vindication God had promised him, but he lost heart and begged his fellow-prisoner for help. John the Baptist sent Jesus a question from his own prison cell, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" I am not the first to fear. I am not the first to wonder if I have come the wrong way, after all.

Why am I afraid? I thought that peace would come with placing myself in God's hand, in choosing forgiveness instead of bitterness, in letting go of my way, in choosing love over pride and grace over vengeance. But sin and self in me have risen up and they wage war against my will. Jesus will overcome, but just now, I am at war.

The way of Jesus is backward and upside-down. It runs counter to my self-preserving instinct and my culture and my comfort-loving heart.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. (Matthew 16:25)
I don't know when God's work with me will start to make sense, but I hold onto him...and that means he is holding onto me.
 “We are not necessarily doubting that God will do the best for us; we are wondering how painful the best will turn out to be.” ― C.S. Lewis
Surely Jesus who died will make things right.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Tedious Grief

The nation of the awful stars,
The wandering star whose blaze is brief,
These make me beat against the bars
Of my grief;
My tedious grief, twin to the life it mars.

O fretted heart tossed to and fro,
So fain to flee, so fain to rest!
All glories that are high or low,
East or west,
Grow dim to thee who art so fain to go. (from Fluttered Wings, C. Rossetti)
I am always watching,
always on the lookout for some new way of thinking;
some different way of seeing
that will make sense of this strange grief I feel.
Why strange, when it has been so long?
By now, how is it that this is not yet familiar?
Why grief, when I have lived with less and yet been satisfied?

Why still this sudden emptiness,
this sense of loss?
What have I lost?

Everywhere there is preaching, advice
(I can't complain - I seek it out)
There are answers, smooth and pat and trite
Neat boxes of experience, tied up with bows
People eager to explain what they had not known
People full of contrition now
(I see them in my mind, all wisely nodding)
They had not understood;
had sought the things that pleased themselves -
our Father rescued them.
The hurt is over now, because they see aright

Why can't I see? What is waiting to happen before my healing comes?

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Tasting Bitterness

The only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-up... But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits, so that the pretense of being grown-up helps them grow up in earnest. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
To young eyes, the glory of adulthood lies in freedom. I remember my longing, as a child, to grow up and be free to do as I pleased. Now that I am indisputably a grown-up, I do take satisfaction in my freedom, and I would resent its loss - but freedom is not all. There are deeper glories than children know. The taste for sweet comes naturally even to babies and taste for bitter things is rarely developed in children, but I have come to find that the bitter can, after all, be a better kind of satisfying than the sweet.

All the things my father told me again and again when it seemed I wasn't listening, I hear them in my head. His and my mother's are the voices that converse in my mind, where I am ever a teenager, caught between a comfortable past to which I cannot return and the beckoning promise of freedom in adulthood, always just out of reach. "With freedom comes responsibility," my parents said, and so say their echoing voices, over and over again. It is more than a maxim: there is Truth inside.
I thought of it then as costs and benefits: freedom the benefit, to be gotten for as low a price as possible. I didn't know that responsibility itself could be something savoured.

I recently read Matthew Aughtry's discussion of this paradox in his analysis of C. S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia:
"She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age. Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can and then stop there as long as she can." (C. S. Lewis, Narnia)
Lewis’ indictment of Susan feels apt for our own culture, which seems to idolize the idea of being young and independent forever without the responsibility that comes with independence or the sense of wonder that comes with being young...
Susan is not the only one of the Pevensies to make this critical error; Edmund also put more stock in being grown-up than in acting like an adult... Edmund betrays his family to the White Witch because he is enticed by her offer of rooms full of endless Turkish Delight... The Witch says that he can be the King when she dies and until then he will be a prince who “would wear a gold crown and eat Turkish Delight all day long.” Since the White Witch is immortal (or at least lives much longer than human beings), one can deduce that Edmund would actually be a perpetual prince, stuffing his face with dessert and never donning the true crown. Edmund’s temptation and Susan’s failure are similar: to be considered adults without accepting responsibility and to reign forever as a prince or princess without ever feeling the crown’s weight.

Glory is something that has weight. It is not flung about the shoulders as the superhero capes children imagine themselves wearing. We need muscle and sinew and deep moral strength to bear real glory, and those mean pain and patience and going forward when we'd rather not. We, like Edmund, are always tempted to sell ourselves out for candies. Eagerly we (I!) would trade in bitterness for sweet - not knowing that the price we pay for things is, oddly, its own reward; that the joy of adulthood lies not just in the freedom that beckons us as children, but also in bearing the weight of responsibility, in sacrifice, in the hurt that tears us apart and yet builds in us something of a value we can't yet know.

The biblical Joseph dreamed of reigning over his older brothers, who hated and ignored him. To his childish mind, the sweetness of the dream lay in his vindication before those who failed to value him. When he became king as an adult, the pleasure of being vindicated paled beside the satisfaction he took in the work, the weight of responsibility, and the opportunity to give good even to those who had hurt him. Joseph learned as a slave and a prisoner what he never could have learned as a prince: how to love past hurt, how to look past the present, how in suffering it is possible to see the face of God.

We all know, somehow, that we were made to be kings, but we grasp so little of what that means that we go willingly when drawn by the whispered lie that our destiny lies behind the protection of castle walls, that our satisfaction lies in desserts and playthings, and so we hide from danger and dirt and hard decisions and use our adult freedom to indulge childish longings for sweets. We become "perpetual princes", never the wise, battle-strong kings we were meant to be. Like Esau, we sell our birthrights and rage over the loss of muttered blessings.

I am not so grown up that I understand it all, nor are my tastes so refined that I am able to know and relish real Good. But I have come to taste that there is more, and to know that bitterness has its own flavour and its own joy. Even knowing this, I still don't want pain. I am easily tired in my heart, and I am strangely more quick to run from hurt than ever before. But I see in truth what I could only philosophize before: that all breaking is not empty; sometimes it's a shell that cracks, and there is a nut inside. I have yet to find the purpose in my own breaking. I am all cracks and wincing and tearing apart. But I am less a child now, and I have hope that there is a goodness in this bitterness that has come to me that is somehow more than the sweetness I desire.

Someday I will see Jesus, and I will know him by his scars. He is no far-off God, benevolently dropping down blessings in response to pious prayers. He knows my hurt as no god ever has ever claimed to know it. But we are bound together not only by his suffering. So I know his heart, too, loving past the hurt. Each of us, in our own wounding, knows the other. I will go to that One who sacrificed for me, but I will not go only as a child wondering at his gift to me. No, I will also go in the glory of adulthood, weak though I am, bearing my own sacrifice, and there will be no need to explain its paucity or inadequacy. He knows the cost of these things.
...that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death... (Philippians 3:10)

Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD; his going out is sure as the dawn; he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.” (Hosea 6:3)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matthew 5:43-45)